Monday, June 8, 2009

My Name is Lindsay, and I am a Recipe Follower

Yesterday I took part in two of my most favorite Chicago summer pastimes.

I had lawn-seat tickets to see the some of the best singer-songwriters around on one stage - Emmylou Harris, Shawn Colvin, Patti Griffin, and Buddy Miller. They performed at Ravinia, the outdoor pavilion concert venue.

Lawn seats at Ravinia mean only one thing. Picnic! I found this black bean and tomato quinoa recipe on The Kitchn to supplement store-bought cheese, crackers, and strawberries.

At around 10 a.m. I got to work in the kitchen, which felt strange because I typically cook at night. But as the quinoa's nutty smell mingled with the scent of my morning coffee, I mixed spices and lime juice with black beans, yellow corn, and grape tomatoes, and tossed with the quinoa. But no matter how much extra salt and pepper I threw in there, the whole thing tasted kind of bland.

But I didn't have time to tweak. I had to get going so I wouldn't miss a scheduled talk at the other event that's always high on my Chicago summer to-do list - the Printers Row Lit Fest.

To understand the Printers Row Lit Fest, you need to picture several city blocks filled with white tents. Then imagine those white tents filled with tables and shelves. Then think of those tables and shelves piled high with books. Then revel in the fact that those books are heavily discounted. It's a beautiful site.

Many authors also give talks about their books. I had the privilege of listening to chef-turned-New-York-Times-food-columnist-and-book-author Molly O'Neill discuss her new anthology of American food writing.

I have to be honest that since my interest in cooking only dates back about a year and a half, I was not familiar with her work. But in addition to cooking more, I am interested in how food writers write about cooking. How do you describe the tastes and smells? How do you convey the feeling of creating and sharing a meal? How do you explain how those little (or major, in my case) kitchen disasters and hard-fought victories that define the cooking experience?

I made it to the tent just in time to hear the Hearty Boys introduce her and moderator, Leah Eskin (a Chicago Tribune food columnist whose work I am familiar with and a fan of). So I'm sitting there, feeling quite literary and ready to absorb her culinary wisdom, when Molly says something kind of obvious but provocative.

She says (and I paraphrase), "I've learned that there are two types of people - recipe followers and cooks. A recipe follower takes a recipe and makes it exactly as it is written. A cook can look at the recipe and remember it, and may try ways to change it."

As I ponder this, I suddenly realize why the quinoa tastes so bland. I forgot to add green onions! My mind tingles with a mix of dread and relief. How could I forget when they were on the recipe? I can add them later, but would the flavor have been stronger if I had mixed them in earlier? This internal dialogue rages inside my head. It's undeniable. I am a recipe follower.

I think there is a stigma associated with this, that recipe followers aren't creative or adventurous enough to experiment with ingredients and make a dish our own. But when I think about it, I am reminded of why I was intimidated to start cooking in the first place - a great fear of messing up. Compounding that fear were articles, magazines, cookbooks, blogs, and all those picture-perfect dishes that made cooking feel inaccessible and not worth the effort.

Just two weeks before the summer CSA deliveries start up again, it's worth revisiting why I decided to start. Essentially I was bored with my narrow range of food choices and thought that if I paid upfront, I would have to find ways to eat it. I also loved the environmental aspect of eating food that's grown nearby. What I didn't realize was how much better the food would taste and how many new foods and flavors I have discovered in the process.

Now if someone (usually Ryan, who qualifies as more of a cook) suggests a substitution or variation on the recipe, I'll still flinch. But Molly says that being a recipe follower is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if it's how people get comfortable in the kitchen. Relief! I mean who cares as long as I'm making meals from real food and not boxes?

Molly even put it out there in her talk. "What's the worst that could happen? You could blow dinner. So what? Then you order pizza."

I went home, liberated, and added those green onions. Just like the recipe said.


meleyna said...

I found you through my referral statistics, and when I clicked on your site I immediately went "WTF? Someone stole my picture." Then I calmed down and realized I was over reacting when I noticed the missing green onions. Glad you figured out what went wrong, and I hoped it helped. Also, you might check to see how old your spices are. If they've been hanging out in your pantry for who knows how long, they may be lacking in flavor. Anyway, I'm glad you tried this, and hope the next recipe you follow (to a T) fares a bit better.

Happy cooking!

Lindsay said...

I'll consider that a compliment if you thought I grabbed your photo, but nope, that's my hand-me-down plate that is at least 25 years old :) Thanks for the spice tip. I know that's true, but I can't bring myself to throw them out. The green onions definitely helped with the flavor though, and once the dish settled overnight, it tasted even better.


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